You might have started hearing about Ocean clean-up projects recently, but Ocean pollution is a problem that’s been going on for generations. Our beautiful Ocean has been a dumping ground for plastic, industrial and chemical waste, and sewage.

Unfortunately, for years, our Ocean has not been treated as the valuable resource that it is, but more like the world’s biggest landfill site. The Ocean was considered to be able to hold unlimited amounts of waste, although nowadays we recognise that this is a complete misconception.   

What is the history of Ocean pollution?

We are used to our rubbish being collected and sorted out and recycled or put into landfill. But for millennia, people didn’t dispose of their waste as we would today, and instead would use waterways as a means of disposal or they would burn their rubbish. 

Therefore, waste would end up in our Ocean or in the atmosphere. Before the advent of plastics, and with a relatively small population, the amount of Ocean waste was rather small. However, in the 1860s when plastic was first developed by Alexander Parkes, although rubbish disposal was becoming more common-place, households began to generate more waste.

What is marine pollution?

This human impact on the Ocean is called marine pollution. Marine pollution refers to waste ending up in the Ocean and causing adverse effects. It is a problem that has only been increasing since Alexander Parkes discovered plastic. 

When was Ocean pollution - specifically, Ocean dumping - first reported?

We can assume that Ocean dumping has been in practice before anyone investigated it, partly because scientists didn’t attempt to research this issue before the 1960s. Many organisations used to dump their chemical by-products into waterways to remove their waste. 

In the 1960s, scientists from the National Academy of Sciences discovered some alarming news - more than 100 million tonnes of waste had been dumped in our Ocean. This report discounted plastic pollution, which now we know is one of the major pollutants in our Ocean, because it has just recently become a mainstream material. Instead, the Ocean pollution that these scientists reported largely relates to chemical, industrial and sewage waste. 

How have plastics developed into a major pollutant of our Ocean?

After the invention of plastic in the mid-1860s, the material was rarely used until WWII. During WWII, plastic technology came to the forefront because copper, aluminium, steel and zinc all became highly sought-after metals used only for the war effort. This demand for plastics was so high and due to the high demand, plastic technology developed exponentially. 

The history of plastic pollution only gets more interesting. In the 1960s, it became clear how polluted our Ocean actually was. Scientists discovered that seabirds were ingesting plastic materials and seals were getting trapped in plastic netting. By the 1970s, it became clear that plastic doesn’t ‘go away’ but rather it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics. 

How have we tried to de-pollute the Ocean?

There have been legislative attempts to de-pollute the Ocean and remove plastic from our waterways. 

Four years after the National Academy of Sciences scientists discovered how much waste had really been dumped into the Ocean, the U.S Congress passed the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries act.

By the 1980s, the Society of the Plastics Industry developed the plastic resin identification code, to make recycling and disposing of plastics easier.    

What’s the bigger problem with plastic in the Ocean?

Every year, we still produce millions of tonnes of plastic, from plastic bottles to giant plastic commercial containers. Tonnes of plastic still ends up contributing to marine pollution for two reasons, even though we know that plastic pollution is bad for the planet. 

There may be a lack of individual awareness, but it’s an issue at the local government level too. If local officials aren’t worried about plastic pollution in our Ocean, then no necessary legislation is implemented

What does the future of our Ocean look like?

Plastic usage is on the rise, but that doesn’t mean that our Ocean will be in a critical condition forever. We can end pollution in our Ocean, right the wrongs of our plastic pollution history, and appreciate the Ocean as the life force that it is, rather than use it as a dumping ground. 

We are the first generation to deeply understand the issues affecting our Ocean and we’re the last generation who can stop them. Ocean Generation is committed to restoring a healthy relationship between humanity and our Ocean. Through education and empowering the next generation of Wavemakerswe can change the fate of our Ocean. 

Ocean Generation Wavemaker Programme

With our Wavemaker programme and Deep Currents workshops, we are committed to helping young people make a positive change in their local environment and worldwide. Our Wavemaker programme inspires positive social change and action, enabling us to mend the relationship between the Ocean and people.

Learn more about our Wavemaker programme here

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